Cauliflower postcard - Archive: Bill Faller

LIRR Cauliflower Freight


LIRR H10s #108 westbound at Southold c.1950
Photo: John Krause Archive: George H. Lightfoot III

The Growth and Decline of the Long Island Rail Road Freight Traffic In Suffolk County  - by Michael Bartley LIST-NRHS

In the 1880’s cauliflower was considered a delicacy in New York City and the market price at the time was $1.50 a head [1] and the largest growers of Cauliflower were Riverhead and Southold. In 1890 the Town of Riverhead’s official census was 4,000 people. And yet Riverhead was becoming the agriculture hub of the East End. The LIRR along with the farmers was the main factor that Riverhead was earning that title. Many farmers at this time had families dating back before the American Revolution who have been working the land in the East End. And after the LIRR came to the East End in the 1840’s Irish Immigrations followed the rail road to find work. Within a few decades more Europeans such as Germans and Polish settled in Riverhead to earn a living farming. The LIRR was instrumental in the development of Riverhead, as well as the rest of Long Island.    Photo: Southold Station c.1900 Archive: Charles Corey - Southold Historical Society

[1]  Equal to $36 a head today. So, yes, a delicacy in New York City in the 1880’s! Using today’s pricing about a pound of Cauliflower at $4-$5 for a head. Would have been 20¢ in 1885. Wow, talk about a “cash crop”.


There were a few organizations that were formed in Riverhead that had a huge impact in the agriculture industry. The oldest one was formed in 1863 by a group of farmers to form a club promoting agriculture. Meetings were held to discuss different kinds of seeds, and what type of crops were the most profitable to grow. This club was called the Riverhead Town Agricultural Society and was the oldest farm cooperative group in the United States. When commercially mixed fertilizers became available the Society acted as purchasing agents for its members and get bids and contracts for delivery of fertilizer at the lowest price. In 1872 the society bought a 1 pound bag of Algiers Cauliflower seed and this is what started the East End to become the largest growers of Cauliflower east of the Mississippi River with over 1/3 of Cauliflower grown in the United States in the Towns of Riverhead and Southold.

Riverhead team track cauliflower loading colorized postcard c.1905


In 1901 a few farmers formed the Long island Cauliflower Association. The LICA was a cooperative that would buy cauliflower seed at the lowest price possible, supplying barrels and later wooden crates to it farmers and working out reduced shipping cost’s with the LIRR by filling up more reefers. The LICA had a better system of marketing cauliflower and have agents in New York City selling the crop.

During harvest time which was between September and October before any frost the LICA would have a daily auction both in Riverhead and Southold. Farmers would line up their wagons filled with special ventilated barrels allowing air to circulate packed with up to 12 head of cauliflower. It was up to the farmer once his crop was inspected and given a market price to decide if he wanted the LICA to purchase his cauliflower. The LICA would give a receipt to the farmer and it would be the responsibly of the LICA to sell the crop and pay the farmer. The cauliflower would be loaded into iced reefers and the LIRR would run the cars to the city market.


"A Cauliflower Industry" - The Brooklyn Daily Eagle 7/07/1900 - J. Glenn Eugster




During 1903 the LICA shipped 285,000 barrels of cauliflower, as well as 300 carloads of potatoes. Each year the LIRR would ship to New York thousands of barrels of pickles, onions, asparagus, cabbage and cranberries. In a short time period the LIRR would be shipping over a million bushels of potatoes from the farms of East Hampton and Southampton. During this time also the LIRR hauled thousands of bushels of lima beans from farms between Deer Park and Riverhead.

"Long Island Railroad's Cauliflower Train" - The Standard Union 5/09/1905 - J. Glenn Eugster









During the harvest time of 1905 the LIRR transported 437 tons of berries, 10,075 tons of cauliflower, 20,962 tons of pickles, and 53,724 tons of potatoes. The LIRR used 3,250 freight car loads to haul the Long Island produce to market.

"Cauliflower Train Starts" - The Brooklyn Daily Eagle 9/24/1908 - J. Glenn Eugster





"...50,000 barrels of cauliflowers bring growers $50,000 in six-day periods, all grown in two towns. Nearly all of this stock has been harvested from two towns, Riverhead and Southold...the big freight yard here is constantly filled with cars waiting to receive the crop...icing the cars is another big business resulting from the big crop..."


"East End Farmers Have Record Week" - The Brooklyn Daily Eagle 9/27/1913 - J. Glenn Eugster








In 1936 the LIRR shipped 667 reefers of cauliflower and in 1937 there were over 1,054 car loads of cauliflower. These reefers needed to be iced. And in the age before mechanical refrigeration the typical refrigerator was heavily insulated with bunkers at each end of the car to hold blocks of ice. The ice would be loaded into the bunkers through roof top hatches. To supply ice to these cars in the late 1800’s up to the manufacture of “artificial” ice Long Islanders during the early part of the 20th century. East End farmers and fisherman as well as the rest of communities worked together in the winter time when ponds, lakes, and rivers were frozen in the task of ice harvesting. They would cut blocks of ice out of the frozen water using saws just like the type of saws lumberjacks had. These ice blocks then would be loaded onto wagons and stored in well insulated wooden warehouses. The ice would be well packed together with sawdust and remained frozen throughout the spring and summer and be used for harvest time.    Photo: Riverhead Produce reefer ice loading 1951 Photo: John Krause

William Sweezy of Riverhead formed the Long Island Ice company. Overtime the Long Island Ice company would have 7 locations on Long Island. In 1928 a modern Ice house and warehouse with a 2 car capacity was built in Riverhead. During harvest time the LIRR leased reefers would be loaded with blocks of ice from the LI Ice Co.

The LIRR earned revenue hauling this type of freight until the mid-1940’s when more trucks took over the transportation of garden crops grown on Long Island. In Port Jefferson harvest time the LIRR would be shipping up to 20 cars a day of potatoes and cauliflower. The Remz Feed building opposite the Port Jefferson train station would receive by rail large shipments of Purina Chow poultry feed.

Photo: Riverhead Cauliflower Cooperative - Archive: Bill Faller





1966 WAS A TIME OF CHANGE ON THE RAILROAD  - by Gene Collora “Semaphore” April 1991, pages 5-7 excerpt 

"...1966 was still a year of considerable freight operation on the LIRR. Double-ended freights (out one day – back the next) operated 6 days/week to Montauk (L-50), Greenport (L-62), Port Jefferson (L-56), and Ronkonkoma (L-52). Extras operated during the potato and cauliflower season and it was not uncommon to have reefers on every siding east of “KO” (Ronkonkoma) – even on the turntable at Greenport..."